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Paperboy memoirs

Photo provided by Roger Smith The old Gazette Building on Isle Royale Street.

By Roger Smith

For the Gazette

Some childhood memories are strong – almost indelibly etched into an absorbent young brain needing to be filled, and retained forever.

For me, one of those permanent memories is the experience of being a paperboy in the 1950’s for Houghton’s Daily Mining Gazette. For an 11-year old in 1957, the distraction of TV didn’t yet exist in my household, and computers, video games and cellphones were far off in science fiction future, so having my first real job was the huge focus of my life. I worked as a carrier through 1960 – about 4 years total.

I’m writing this from sheer recall, which attests to the strength and vividness of these memories, which survive after more than 60 years of other life experiences. But please forgive any minor inaccuracies or misspellings of names, which likely will occur. I’m thankful to Mike Laurin and Steve Wyble – two other childhood friends who also worked at the Gazette and helped fill in my voids of memory, and to my brother, Bob, who had earlier worked the big Gazette route covering East Houghton.

My writings are in installments covering: 1. The Gazette Operation and Production, 2. My Gazette Route – Downtown Houghton, 3. The Paperboy Business Model and 4. Houghton Life In the 50’s (a more general look at those wonderful times).

I hope you’ll enjoy this glimpse of the Gazette in much simpler times.

Part 1: The Gazette Operation & Production in the 50’s

In the 1950’s, the Daily Mining Gazette was the only daily newspaper in the region. It thrived in serving not only the Copper Country, but also all the smaller towns in about a 50-mile radius from Houghton.

It was an afternoon publication with offices and pressroom in a great old sandstone building on Isle Royale Street, just downhill from the Douglass House Hotel on Houghton’s main street, Sheldon Avenue. It stands strong today as a monument to this bygone era, and to the durability of the famous local Jacobsville sandstone from which it was built.

The first two floors were taken up by the big pressroom, and Gazette’s business offices were on the 3rd floor. The lofty old fourth floor “attic” housed the paper’s composing and graphic layout operation.

But the real heart of the Gazette operation was the street-level pressroom, where, the gods willing, around 2 p.m. every day (except Sunday), the giant mechanical press would roar to life and spit out the 12-to-16 page Daily Mining Gazette, a ritual that had played out, in some fashion, for 100 years.

In the pressroom, ribbons of blank newspaper from several monstrous feeder rolls would wind their way through the big complex press machine, contacting inked rollers of text copy and ads, to finally merge and be cut and folded into today’s edition of the Gazette.

This daily production was the final product of people like Publisher Jack Rice, and managers like Nate Pruner, Wally Hansen and Irene Waisanen – all highly reliant on colorful writers like Earl Gagnon, Dick Loranger and Bill Brinkman. Their work was done in the business office on the third floor. The fourth floor attic where the layout and graphics of each issues were done, under the guidance of Mr. Goulette. It was pretty much off limits, but once I was lucky enough to be invited up there, and I remember seeing the amazing old Lineotype machine that could somehow make and set lines of metal type to make up the headlines and text for articles and ads. This complex contraption – operated from a small mechanical typewriter keyboard – probably represented the height of the mechanical age of printing. Such a far cry from today’s electronic / digital printing technology. I only hope it’s preserved as a museum piece somewhere today.

I stepped into this “big time” newspaper world in 1957 when I took over Gazette paper route, “No. 9,” from my friend, Charlie Terrian – at age 11. Charlie, three years my senior, was moving on to more adult jobs like part-time janitorial work in local stores, and setting pins at Burt Gillis’s small 5-lane bowling alley beneath Ed Haus’s men’s store, just west of the Lode Theater. I would later also follow him on that lucrative “career path.” But stepping into the business world with my own paper route was enough of a thrill – and challenge – for now.

The heart of the Gazette operation was the pressroom. I can still conjure up the sights, sounds and smells of that productive beehive. Each day, the starting of the old Goss printing press was a big event. Huge rolls of blank paper had to be hoisted into place by block and tackle chains, and then threaded into the complex press machine. Lead print cylinders, slid onto rollers in the press, carried all the type and advertising graphics for a single page. The maximum size of the Gazette was 16 pages in those days, but 12 pages was the norm. When everything was set, the startup of the press always involved lots of yelling and commotion, and multiple short trial runs, with the skilled pressmen closely inspecting the first papers, then making any necessary adjustments to the complex mechanics of the press.

With a lot of “hangout time” in the pressroom, I eventually got to know the guys who made it all work. Keeping the monster press running was the job of skilled pressmen like Jim McKean and Waldo Strauser, who were the top of the pecking order and calling the shots. They managed the complex press operation, and even the casting of the large cylindrical print tubes, or “cans,” from molten lead, which was done in a rear side room. These cans were recycled by melting them down after each day’s use and recasting them for the next print run. Of course, this was way before any electronic imaging, and probably represented the height of the purely mechanical age. The hands-on skill and experience involved in keeping this highly mechanical printing operation alive still astounds me. Everything was black and white – no color – and, of course, the ink was bought by the barrel (which reminds me of Mark Twain’s famous warning – “Never get in an argument with people who buy their ink by the barrel!”).

When the high-speed press eventually rolled, it gave birth to a conveyor line of finished, folded papers. Random copies were grabbed by the pressmen and given a quick check for major mistakes like page alignment, print quality, etc.. After the necessary press adjustments were made and all looked well, the press would commence its full run. The fresh papers on a conveyer belt would be quickly grabbed up by the paper handlers. Every 50 papers, the press would amazingly misalign a paper on the conveyor as a count indicator – a big help to the men scooping up the hot papers. (Yes, “hot off the press” means just that.)

The paper handlers included “bundlers” like Joe Morin (and other characters whose names escape me) who would count and bundle large numbers of papers – usually by rolling and tying them with twine or wrapping the bundled in glued wrappers made from old papers. For a young boy, the speed of these bundlers was astounding and a pleasure to watch as they manipulated the twine, cutting it with small finger-mounted knives at a rapid-fire pace – all the while making small talk and cracking an occasional joke – usually not meant for 11-year old ears.

These paper bundles were destined for waiting cars that would deliver them to paperboys in other small towns in the Copper Country region – like Chassell, L’Anse, Baraga, Calumet, Lake Linden, Ontonogan and as far as White Pine. “Joco” Celsini was one memorable jovial driver, who handled the Lake Linden route. I think their pay was about $3/day, which probably paid the rent in those days.

In a separate operation, part-time student help like Jim Pruner, Rod Wagner (later Bobby Wagner, Steve and Paul Wyble and Mark Igo ) would roll individual papers in brown mailing wrappers that had been pre-addressed by an amazing Address-O-Graph machine, housed right there in the pressroom. The Address-O-Graph somehow fed drawers of metal address plates, about the size of military dog tags, to rapidly print addresses on the brown paper wrappers. Like the Lineotype machines, these were highly mechanical – no electronics here! These printed wrappers would be fanned out and brushed with glue that was simply a flour and water mix. These individually wrapped and addressed papers would be mailed to distant subscribers – no doubt former residents of the Copper Country wanting to maintain some tie to “home.”

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